I travelled to Bethlehem in a small cart. Every bump (and there were many) was agony. As I was jolted along, I was racked with pain. The baby’s time was near, you see and the pain was almost unbearable. Later, they would sing songs about a cute donkey carrying me. Nice thought! I don’t think there’s any way you could have got me on a donkey. As each contraction cramped every muscle in my torso, I huddled up like an animal and prayed for it to be over.
I could see Joseph, watching me as he walked alongside. He really didn’t have the first idea what to do. Oh, how I wanted my mother. I yearned for her to be there, holding my hand, telling me everything was all right and would be over soon.
When we arrived at Joseph’s uncle’s house, the women folk came and helped me inside. The room was crowded. All Joseph’s male relatives from miles around had come to the house for shelter and food. The women were busy cooking supper and the men were drinking wine and comparing stories. They all told Joseph how much he resembled his grandfather, Matthan and laughed at old stories from years ago. The smell of fish and fresh bread was nauseating. I was so tired and so uncomfortable.
Joseph knew I was suffering and asked if there was somewhere quiet that I could go. There was no chance that we would get a place in the inn, they had filled up days ago. Somewhere quiet, in a little house packed with relatives?
There were some fraught discussions and then his aunt suggested that the animal shelter, down on the lower floor of the house, might be best. It wasn’t terribly clean, but it would be quiet and private and at least it wouldn’t smell of fish.
Joseph helped me to go down, and a couple of the women came too. One of them examined me and told me the baby was a long way off yet, first babies always take their time in coming. This was not great news but I felt better having her there. I felt that she knew what was happening, had seen this before; it took some of the fear away.
I was frightened, you see. I was horribly afraid that somehow I would damage my baby. My baby and God’s. I knew he was going to be special, I knew I had a great task ahead of me but it all seemed to be going horribly wrong. I trusted that God was still in control but he felt so far away.
Could the baby not have been born in a palace, surrounded by comfort? Would these poor beginnings really be part of a plan? Could they really make this king accessible to the people? I had no idea.
I was a mere girl; I had no education and my memory of scriptures was often fuzzy. To be honest, at this present moment, I didn’t even care. I just wanted this baby OUT! Special or not, my body was tired of carrying him, tired of being stretched and pushed, of fitting something inside that was now too big to be there. I needed this baby to be born and I was too exhausted to wait much longer.
How I longed for sleep. The pain in my back was terrible. Great waves of cramp that seared through my body, making me oblivious to everything else. I was vaguely aware that someone was sweeping the floor and moving the animals to a far corner. They had laid out a mattress and blankets for me to rest on but I couldn’t lie still for long. I felt better standing, rocking in time with the pain, trying to remember to breathe: in out, in out. Someone offered me water but I couldn’t drink. I wasn’t thirsty—I just wanted this baby to be born.
I could see Joseph with his big anxious eyes watching me. He didn’t know what to do. Someone suggested he should go into the house to eat and I nodded in agreement. There was nothing he could do and the poor man must have been tired too. He had endured such an emotional time lately. First there was his fear and anger when he first heard about the baby (now that was a difficult conversation!) Then he had to endure the smirks of his friends when the pregnancy became public knowledge. He never complained, but I know he felt embarrassed, wished that God could have chosen a different girl.
We had been travelling for five days, with hardly any rest and the last couple of days had been chilly. I know he felt the burden of caring for me, watching for bandits on the roads and wondering if we would make it to Bethlehem in time. If the baby had come early, I don’t know what he’d have done—left me with strangers on the road somewhere I guess and come to register on his own. One didn’t mess with a Roman decree. . .
The pain eventually became almost constant. Joseph had eaten and rested but I continued to sway in discomfort in the little room of animals. Every so often one of them would poop, and although the women with me cleaned it up quickly, the smell pervaded the atmosphere. It was hard to ignore.
I could hear the musicians gathering, someone must have told them the birth would be soon. They would stand outside, waiting to hear whether the baby was a boy so they could play. That gave me hope, maybe soon the baby would arrive.
Then at last, in a final searing pain, the baby was born. I looked down at his blue waxy body as he wriggled on the blanket, and I knew that he was mine. My love for him was overwhelming. He was part of me, I would die rather than let anything hurt him.
One of the women wiped him down with oil and salt and I held him in my arms while they looked for the swaddling bands in our luggage.
How beautiful he was. His indigo eyes would soon turn brown and they gazed at me trustingly. I loved him with my whole being.
Outside, there was the sound of music and singing as the musicians heralded the arrival of a boy, and I smiled, knowing they would have quietly slid away into the night if the baby had been a girl. But there had been no chance of that, not this time.
Joseph came and took the baby from me. He held the tiny baby in his giant carpenter’s hands, hands that spoke of hard work and safety. He didn’t say anything, this man who had been chosen to protect me; he simply stared at the baby—looking, wondering.
Then the baby started to mouth for food and Joseph passed him back. The women showed me how to feed him, but he was soon asleep. Then we gently wrapped him in the swaddling bands, securing his tiny limbs so he would feel snug and secure and his bones would grow straight and true. He was so beautiful. It was hard to remember what the angel had told me, that this was God’s son too. I began to wonder if I had imagined it, if it were all a dream. This baby did not look like God, he was a baby. My baby.
“If it’s true God,” I thought, “Let there be another sign. He is so little and I love him so much. Is all this travelling, and squashing into a crowded house with the animals, really part of the plan? Are you still in control? Can you still see me? Remind me again…”
I too needed to sleep. Joseph fetched fresh hay and put it in the animal’s manger, covering it with a soft blanket. I didn’t want him to put the baby there, I wanted to keep him on the bed next to me, but Joseph was worried I might roll on him in my sleep. Then he laid the baby down and told me to sleep. He looked deep into my eyes and brushed my collar bone lightly with his fingers.
“Soon you’ll be truly mine,” he whispered. I knew what he meant and felt myself blush.
I was so tired, I thought I would sleep for a week.
I actually slept for about two hours. I was abruptly woken by loud voices and a draft of cold air as the door was flung open. There, standing uncertainly in the doorway was a group of youths. Their clothes were dirty and exuded the strong smell of sheep. Joseph was with them.
“Mary? Are you awake?” he asked.
It would be hard not to be with all the noise from outside.
“These shepherds want to see the baby. They were told by angels where they could find him and they have come to look at him.”
I checked I was decently covered before nodding, letting Joseph know that it was all right, they could come in. They trouped into the room. They seemed so big and clumsy in such a small space, with their long limbs and rough clothes. I worried they might hurt the baby.
But they didn’t try to touch him, they just stared for a while and then one of them knelt and they all followed suit, kneeling before the manger, staring at the baby.
Then they told me their story, how they had been in the fields and an angel had appeared. They had thought they were going to die, to be struck down right where they were.
The angel had reassured them, told them that a saviour had been born, the Christ who we’ve all been waiting for. They would find him lying in a manger. Then suddenly there were lots of angels, all praising God and saying he was pleased with people on earth.
After the angels had gone, finding they were still alive after all, the shepherds decided to come at once and see for themselves. It was as though they couldn’t quite believe what they had seen and heard, they needed to actually see the baby with their own eyes.
I felt so humbled and so cared for. God had heard my thoughts. He was reassuring me. It was all his plan, not some terrible mistake; circumstances hadn’t caused us to drop out of his control, he could still see me. We were meant to be here. He even knew about the manger!
I listened and smiled and treasured my thoughts.
The shepherds left as noisily as they came. I could hear them in the streets, shouting their news, telling everyone what had happened. They were so excited, I expect they woke up half the town. They had of course woken the baby who was now crying with a thin wail that jarred my nerves and was impossible to ignore. I fed him some more and then we both slept. A tired, contented sleep borne from exhaustion and wonder.
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